Dave Francoeur of the York County Emergency Management Agency helps with the setup for a vaccination clinic at the former Marshall’s in Sanford on Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine expects at least an 8 percent jump in COVID-19 vaccine doses delivered to the state next week and could receive significantly more if a third vaccine gains federal approval in the coming days.

State health officials announced Thursday that Maine is slated to receive 30,080 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, an increase of 2,340 doses over this week’s allocation. Factoring in about 8,600 doses expected to be delivered to Walmart/Sam’s Club and Walgreens pharmacies, the anticipated shipments are roughly twice as large as the vaccine distributions to Maine at the beginning of February.

The larger shipments, combined with longer-range predictability from the Biden administration and the prospect of a new vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, has “prompted a series of discussions about where we go from here,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“All of these things – volume, type (of vaccine) and stability – expand the range of options that we have in Maine of where we go next in our vaccination journey,” Shah said during his Thursday briefing. “I suspect that Governor Mills will have much more to say about this topic in the near future.”

Gov. Janet Mills’ office did not respond to a request for an interview after the briefing.

Mills and public health officials have said they hoped to expand vaccine eligibility to Mainers 65 to 69 in early March as long as the state made significant progress inoculating those 70 and older. Nearly 60 percent of residents in the 70-plus age group – and roughly 16 percent of all state residents – had received at least one shot as of Thursday.

TWENTY-FOUR ADDITIONAL DEATHS

The increase in vaccines comes as the CDC reported 24 additional deaths of individuals with COVID-19 on Thursday, a large jump that officials attributed to a review of death records over the past month. The CDC also reported 217 new cases of COVID-19 in the state, marking the third time in two weeks that the number of new infections topped 200 in a day.

Over the past two days, the Maine CDC has reported a total of 41 deaths linked to COVID-19. However, only two of those deaths happened in recent days. The rest occurred during the past month but were identified as having a link to COVID-19 by Maine CDC staff during periodic reviews of death certificates that have been filed with the state’s Division of Data, Research and Vital Statistics.

Still, the 41 additional deaths highlight the toll COVID-19 continues to take on Maine residents – particularly those 70 and older – even as the number of new infections and hospitalizations trends downward and vaccine supplies increase.

A sign thanking people for getting their vaccination hangs at the vaccination clinic at St Christopher’s Church in York on Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Although the number of new infections varies considerably from day to day, ranging from 97 to 218 cases during the past week, Maine’s overall case numbers had been declining following the surge in the late fall and early winter. The seven-day average stood at 150 on Thursday, up slightly from the average of 148 cases daily for the week ending on Feb. 18 but more than four times lower than the peak average of 625 reported on Jan. 15.

The Maine CDC has reported 44,117 total confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in Maine last March. The 24 additional deaths reported Thursday raised the statewide total to 701.

NEW VACCINATION OPTIONS

The pace of vaccinations also continues to quicken in Maine as more doses arrive in the state from the federal government and older Mainers gain additional options for receiving shots.

On Thursday, Walgreens pharmacy locations across Maine began administering shots to individuals 70 and older who were able to make appointments. The 47 Walgreens pharmacies in Maine joined 24 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores offering vaccinations by appointment through a federal partnership with pharmacies nationwide.

The Walmart and Walgreens partnerships are regarded as key to reaching residents of rural Maine who may live far from the hospitals or health clinics where most vaccinations occurred during the first two months of the campaign. Eventually, pharmacies at Hannaford and Shaw’s supermarkets, as well as CVS, are expected to offer COVID-19 vaccines in Maine.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the addition of Walgreens was “especially welcome” in more remote or rural areas where vaccination rates have been lower.

“We really were struggling with Oxford County,” Lambrew said. “But the Walgreens in Oxford County by themselves, those additional sites will get us a long way towards our goal of vaccinating sufficient people in Oxford County.”

 

Additionally, Northern Light Health began accepting appointments on Thursday for a higher-volume clinic that will open at the Portland Expo on Tuesday. Individuals 70 and older can register for appointments online at covid.northernlighthealth.org or by calling 207-204-8551.

Shah also announced Thursday that a mass-vaccination clinic is slated to open in Sanford “early next week.” That long-awaited clinic will be operated by MaineHealth and is expected to serve residents of York County, which has consistently trailed far behind Cumberland and other coastal counties in vaccination rates despite having the highest per capita infection rate during the pandemic.

PROGRESS ON VACCINES BUT GEOGRAPHIC DISPARITIES REMAIN

As of Thursday morning, health care providers had administered 316,462 total vaccine shots in Maine. That figure includes 211,451 first doses as well as 105,011 second doses of either the Pfizer of Moderna vaccines, both of which require two shots to achieve full inoculation.

Just under 16 percent of Maine’s population of roughly 1.3 million people had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Thursday, while 7.8 percent had received both shots. The current phase of Maine’s vaccination campaign is focused on individuals 70 and older, although eligibility could expand to 65- to 69-year-olds as soon as next week.

Maine ranked 15th among the states and the District of Columbia on Thursday in terms of the percentage of the population that had received at least one shot, according to tracking by Bloomberg.

Still, there are substantial geographic disparities in vaccinations due to how vaccine doses are allocated and the pace at which health care providers are administering those shots. Shah noted Thursday that the Maine CDC is particularly focused on Androscoggin, Somerset, Kennebec, Oxford and Washington counties, where less than 50 percent of eligible residents 70 and older have received shots.

Roughly 59 percent of the 193,000 Maine residents who are 70 and older had received at least one dose as of Thursday morning, while 16 percent had received both doses. Maine is the oldest state in the nation and more than 85 percent of the COVID-19 deaths reported in Maine to date have occurred among individuals in the 70-plus age group, even though they account for just 12 percent of cases.

Public health officials nationwide are eagerly anticipating the potential approval of a third vaccine in the United States as early as this weekend. The vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson only requires one shot instead of the two-shot regimens required of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, although the J&J shots had somewhat lower efficacy rates during clinical trials.

The J&J vaccine is also more shelf-stable, thereby opening additional possibilities for drive-thru clinics, home visits and other strategies for vaccinating more rural or hard-to-reach populations, Lambrew said.

HOSPITALIZATIONS CONTINUE TO DECLINE

Statewide, 67 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday, down from 74 the previous day. There were 22 people being treated in intensive care units, compared to 25 on Wednesday, and eight individuals were connected to ventilators.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 continued to gently fall, with Thursday’s count representing the lowest level statewide since mid-November.

The decline was especially pronounced at Bangor’s Eastern Maine Medical Center – the hardest hit hospital in the state during the post-Thanksgiving surge – which reported an average of 6.4 confirmed COVID inpatients being cared for each day, an eighth of its peak at the end of December.

At the state’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, the figure was 14.9 per day, the lowest level since the week before Thanksgiving.

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